The proposed construction of the Suhua Freeway has stoked a fierce debate between President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), the four Democratic Progressive Party presidential aspirants and environmental groups. Earth Day last Sunday made this issue all the more relevant, and the fate of the project will have a significant impact on the state of environmental protection in this country.
It is the government's responsibility to encourage industrial investment, boost employment, facilitate development of the transportation system and ensure people have access to utilities. However, Taiwan has in recent years been torn between prioritizing large-scale development projects and protecting the environment.
Construction proposals like the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, the Meinung Reservoir in Kaohsiung County and the Taipei-Ilan Freeway have caused heated debate. And yet, a broadly accepted arbitration mechanism for disputes has never been established. This is why similar controversies come with every proposed national development project, and this is a serious waste of resources. It also engenders distrust between the government and the public.
Government regulations stipulate that major construction projects should first be assessed for their environmental impact before work can begin. These rules seem to address the prerequisite that both construction interests and environmental protection are considered. Unfortunately, given that the independence of the environmental assessments has never been respected, it is common to hear complaints of political interference.
For example, the Suhua Freeway proposal seemed like a perfect idea to the government. It would help expand the national freeway system and guarantee the right to convenient transportation for citizens in the eastern part of the country. Some influential individuals, however, strongly opposed the plan because of its potential ecological damage to one of the country's last remaining undeveloped areas. They said the freeway would cause irreversible damage to the ecology in the area, even before the tourists it was meant to attract would have a chance to see it.
Discussing and setting public policy is not a black-and-white issue. Instead, there should be various proposals to choose from that cover different routes, construction techniques, building time limits, engineering budgets and environmental impacts. The road construction departments should be responsible for proposing a variety of options, the environmental impact assessment committee should evaluate each of their merits, the government should estimate the budget, and the public response and practical requirements should all be taken into consideration. The agencies assigned to each part of the chain should complement the others by being professional and independent.
But with the government accused of already having made its mind up on the matter and trying to interfere in the environmental review, this crucial balance has been upset.
Although the government made plans for the highway with the best of intentions, it has already sparked a controversy. It should respect the expert decision of the environmental review committee. If the highway doesn't pass, it shouldn't be built. If it does, the government should explain the merits and flaws of the different plans to the public. If the controversy continues unabated, the government could also take advantage of the year-end legislative elections to put the question to the public in a referendum.
Taiwan's environment belongs to all of its citizens and all of them should have a say.
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